The Theatre Elusive does a tremendous job of bringing Shakespeare’s play about the Egyptian queen and her lover to Toronto theatre audiences.
Antony and Cleopatra. It’s one of William Shakespeare’s most provocative and alluring plays, one that hasn’t been over hyped or sensationalized and has been allowed to maintain its regalia and dignity throughout its many carnations in theatre and film. Playing at Buddies in Bad Times and produced by The Theatre Elusive, this stunning portrayal of the Egyptian Queen and her Roman consort shines clarifying light on what it means to be a woman with power.
The story follows the romantically and politically tumultuous relationship of Antony (William MacGregor) and Cleopatra (Gillian English) from the time of the Parthian War to Cleopatra’s suicide while highlighting the contrasting locales of the lush and opulent Alexandria to the stark and austere Rome.
Here we see Cleopatra as Queen, the human embodiment of Egypt, forge alliance with Rome through her love with Antony, a triumviri of Rome. Their love so encapsulates Antony that he ignores his duties to Rome in order to stay with his beloved. When finally ordered to return to home base, scandals in Rome between Antony and the other triumviri Octavius (Spencer Robson) and Pompey (Kyle Purcell) lead Antony to return to Alexandria and crown Cleopatra and himself as King and Queen of Egypt and the eastern third of the Roman Empire.
Disputes over land lead Antony and Octavius to war where drastic strategic miscalculations are made by Antony at Cleopatra’s suggestions. But his love for her continues undamaged despite the grievous mistakes. Cleopatra’s advice and aid fail Antony a second time in battle and this time he swears off this “foul Egyptian” who “hath betrayed me” and resolves to kill her.
Cleopatra’s final plot to save herself and return her beloved to her arms fails in tragedy.
The setting is minimal, using only two chaise lounges to denote Cleopatra’s and Octavius’ thrones. Lighting plays an integral part in setting the atmosphere and is really done well creating opposing worlds of warmth and cold. One thing I was intrigued by were the choices in costumes. Leather, vinyl and PVC materials were a constant theme accented by golds for Cleopatra and her servants and red for Octavius and his soldiers. I debated as to whether or not I liked these costume choices and, admittedly, I found myself at times distracted by the occasional pop of sequin and sparkly embellishment on an unexpected piece of wardrobe.
The actors take care to use all available space in the Cabaret at Buddies in Bad Times, taking to the stage by means of the staircase in the middle of the room and the side ramps. This allows them to walk through the audience before they take their mark on stage creating a more intimate experience. The language, as you may have surmised, is in Shakespearean old English which, at times, can be a bit difficult to follow along if you’re not used to the terminology. If you need to go back to your high school English notes, feel free.
I left this production with mixed feelings, though most positive. I found Gillian English’s portrayal of Cleopatra compelling and eye-catching; she embodies the regality of the Queen of Egypt, and the inherent sex appeal of a strong and proud woman. She also personifies the fragility of a woman with the weight of a nation’s fate on top of her; a woman in love; and a woman that has to play the political game surrounded by powerful men. The juxtaposition between Cleopatra, Antony and Octavius is exquisite – the moment when Cleopatra bows in supplication to Octavius is raw and powerful.
A number of the cast members were called upon to perform multiple duties by playing smaller roles such as Kyle Purcell who played Pompey, Eros, Dolabella, the Messenger, Maecenas, Scarus and Philo. The actors’ change in character is denoted by their change in wardrobe. Often times I found myself referring back to my playbill in order to keep track of these character changes and found this to be distracting and a bit confusing.
Antony and Cleopatra is one of William Shakespeare’s more diverse and intricate stories that traverses nations. It holds within it so many layers of story, plot, and character that it is sometimes difficult to retell on stage in a manner that will capture an audience for close to two hours. Despite the challenges presented by this story, the team at The Theatre Elusive has done a tremendous job at bringing this performance together and it is well worth experiencing.
- Antony and Cleopatra is playing at the Buddies in Bad Times Cabaret space (12 Alexander St.) from to October 6, 2012.
- Show times are at 8 pm (with a 2:30 pm matinee performance on September 29). There is no performance on September 30.
- Tickets are $25 and $20 for students and art workers.
- Tickets can be purchased online or at the box office.
Photo of William MacGregor and Gillian English by Dahlia Katz.